Apr 16, 2014 fbook icon twitter icon rss icon

Recycling Simply to Save Landfill Space Doesn't Make Sense

We should recycle to save resources overall, rather than focusing on saving one resouce at the expense of all others. If it requires more resources to recycle a product than to dispose of it in a landfill, we should not mandate recycling.  Nontheless, recycling is pushed largely to avoid using landfills regardless of the costs. Such sentiments arose because many needlessly feared that we would run out of landfill space. The battle against landfills heated up in the 1990s when public officials wrongly proclaimed that we faced a garbage crisis because we were running out of landfill space. One reason for this problem, they said, was that existing landfills would close in 5 to 10 years. But that is true at any point in time, because landfills last only that long. Problems arise when states fail to permit new facilities.

There was in the 1990s (and still is) plenty of land on which to place new landfills. During the alleged landfill crisis, A. Clark Wiseman of Gonzaga University pointed out that, given projected waste increases, we would still be able to fit the next 1,000 years of trash in a single landfill 120 feet deep, with 44-mile sides. He wasn’t suggesting building such a large landfill, his point was simple:  land disposal needs are small compared with the land available in the 3 million square miles of the contiguous United States.

The real landfill problem is political. Fears about the effects of landfills on the local environment have led to the rise of the not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) syndrome, which has made permitting facilities difficult. Actual landfill capacity is not running out. The market response to this problem is the construction of larger landfills, creating greater disposal capacity even with fewer landfills.

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